Dec 24, 2018 - 9 minute read

Towards a Progressive Spirituality

Not just How to Be, but also What to Do

Classic spirituality1 trains and informs seekers on seeing through their prejudices about reality—mainly, that the world is an environment around a particularly special I distinct from it. Upon success with this, individuals take their stand as awareness rather than as self-important persons, and feel a one-ness with all experience. This translates to a special flavor of peace, and an end to unnecessary psychological suffering. They have learned How to Be.

This is where classic spirituality stops—at enlightenment, nirvana, liberation, self-realization: words that point to this new stance of Being. But is there more to be said? How do we decide what to do next? Is there a corresponding philosophy of Doing?


Portrait of Nisargadatta Maharaj

Q: What motivates, when there is no fear or desire?

A: Nothing. Unless you count love of life, righteousness, and beauty.

-Nisargadatta Maharaj. I Am That2.

Where spiritual philosophy guides on what to do, it tends to take the form of what not to do. The five Buddhist precepts go: Do not harm, do not steal, do not lie, do not engage in sexual misconduct, do not take intoxicating substances. These are in support of the spiritual path, as they encourage successful meditation leading to spiritual insights, and eventually the biggest one, the one leading to liberation. On what to do outside of that goal, spiritual philosophy is mostly mum. Spiritual teachers, when nevertheless faced with this question from students, typically answer “Use compassion as your guide”, or more directly, “Be of service”. The Dalai Lama famously said that his religion can be summed in two words: “Be kind.” This guidance is in line with the enlightenment concept of nonseparation, when we start seeing each other as equally valid, and harming others is the same as harming ourselves (and helping others is the same as helping ourselves). But can we develop more specific principles?

Let’s start with an axiom: we move towards what we value. The question then becomes, what ought we value? I propose progress. Personal progress, that is reflected in increased personal competence; and communal progress, that is reflected in the increased capacity and capability of our communities and their efficient functioning. We can view this value system as a result of the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection, as applied to not just individuals but also sophisticated civilizations3. And so not something we are arbitrarily prescribing, but natural, something that is already built-in subconsciously that we are mapping out more explicitly. When this value-to-move-toward is clearly seen in a form applicable to our individual circumstances, we as individuals find our individual purpose. And when we take action to move towards this purpose, our lives feel more meaningful.

Contrast this with the classic spiritual axiom: we move towards reducing or avoiding suffering. The question here is then how best to do that. Spiritual philosophy proposes liberation. We learn the requisite enlightened attitude through meditation techniques and by grokking concepts such as nonattachment, nonidentification, and nonseparation4. And again, these ideas are grounded in reality, nature and life experience and so elicited from there rather than something superimposed on our lives. Once discovered and realized, our new attitude makes us happy, well-adjusted and compassionate people, and starts to infect those around us as well. But while we learn how to be at any given time, we remain faced with questions of what to do with our time.


A reason for classic spirituality’s missing guidance on worthwhile action is its de-emphasis of the dimension of time. In some spiritual philosophies, the past is dismissed as a memory happening in the present, and the future is dismissed as a fantasy happening in the present. The claim is that the present is the only thing we experience. Contemplating this could be useful in short-circuiting certain dysfunctional thought patterns of the mind that give rise to excessive regret and anxiety. But this model is quite parsimonious and a show-stopper—we can’t develop further from it, and we feel that our question What to do has not been put to rest.

When we do allow for time in our description of reality, we start noticing interactions, and start inferring cause and effect. Consequently we discern separate objects through narrative: A foot kicks the ball which flies across the field and bounces off the goal post. Without time, we just perceive disconnected snapshots of space, each a scene with no seams. Dropping the narrative between the snapshots in this way can help us absorb the spiritual teaching that form is emptiness5. But when we do allow for narrative, there is an additional richness to experience. And while there are now ostensibly separate objects that appear, we can also note their interdependence. For they are all in constant interaction with each other and thus have no inherent absolute separate identity distinct from this interaction. We can almost say that time makes up all objects, giving them a shared ontology. This in my view is one way to understand emptiness is form, the other half of the aforementioned couplet.

When we examine the objects that time gives us, we notice that while all objects whittle away and disintegrate with time, some first grow in size, structure, and complexity before they degenerate. These objects also interact with other objects in unpredictable ways, not easily described by the coarse laws of physics. I am talking about living things, of course. Living things are also special in that they reproduce and are subject to the forces of evolution, natural selection. We as living beings share a kinship with other living beings, including those of other species. We often find ourselves wishing them well, to prosper and thrive. This is enabled by our species’ evolved intellect, which extends our awareness beyond our own situation to consider and have empathy for a wider circle of life. And like how the property of life in living things gives them a special preciousness beyond that of inanimate matter, it is perhaps this property of extra-personal sentience in human beings that makes us stand out in the animal kingdom.

Portrait of Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin, 1869.

This wider sentience can be deployed in the service of progress, and supercharge the natural forces of evolution to develop not just as fitter, more competent individuals, but also as families, communities, societies, civilizations and ecologies that encompass more and more of life. This is then what we can Do. We can set up a meritocratic structure in the various hierarchies of society, have hard rules of law and soft cultural norms of etiquette, encourage friendly if fierce competition, discourage nepotism and foulplay, and develop forward together as a system. Different countries can try different schemes; those that work well can be replicated by other countries. This competition between memes occurs at multiple scales; for example between smaller units such as corporations trying out different HR policies. There is also, of course, direct competition between individuals, such as for career opportunities. Competing can thus be seen as a spiritual activity rather than as a purely selfish endeavor, because through it an impersonal progress manifests.

With wider sentience also comes the capacity for malevolence. Knowing how others feel, we can calculate how best to hurt them. We can actively work against progress. Classic spirituality typically chalks up bad behavior to ignorance and delusion, but sometimes malevolence is the better way to understand it. Just as objects appear once we allow for time, perhaps we can say that once we allow for extra-personal sentience, good and evil appear.

Etching with a giant crowned figure holding sword and crozier made of smaller persons, and a triptych bottom.
The frontispiece of the book Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil by Thomas Hobbes, 1651.


Are there synergies between the path towards liberation and the path informed by progress? Yes. For empathy is a key operator in both. The move towards liberation comes with heightened reflexive empathy—we feel the pain of others around us as our own, and seek to help them as we can. The move towards progress comes with heightened reasoned empathy—we think about the greater good for the future, and make plans to effect it. In both cases, there is a selflessness; or more precisely, a full-selfness, where the welfare of all parties, including those of the future, is given full consideration.

I’ve often heard classic spiritual teachers advise students to have no agenda. To be in a place of not knowing, and to follow their intuition and natural enthusiasm when making decisions. That once there are goals that are taken seriously, suffering follows. Following our discussion, perhaps we can qualify this advice. If we grow attached to specific outcomes towards a goal, yes that reflects a conceit which needs addressing. But willing a general progress-ive direction to events, and then deploying both our intellect and elbow grease to facilitate that, as sentient constituents of nature going about its evolutionary business of getting fitter, more competent, sometimes through competition—what’s wrong with that? If anything, it supplies the answer to the question of What to do; an answer at once free of personal egos and yet pregnant with individual purpose and meaning.

I understand that when we do not step into the ring and contend with the competition, we then need not face the disappointment of failure or the giddiness of success; but isn’t it better to learn the enlightened stance with sufficient strength that we don’t let either get to us? And so, the call to action is beyond just working towards the end of suffering, our own and of those around us. But to also work towards competence; of our own, and of us all—progress.



1 cf. Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu; The Bhagavad Gita; The Gospel according to Thomas; The Sutta Pitaka of the Buddha; Meditations, Marcus Aurelius.
The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley is a contemporary overview.

2 I Am That. Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. The Acorn Press. 1982. Photo by Jitendra Arya, 1973.

3 cf. discussion of the extended phenotype during the following dialogue between Richard Dawkins and Bret Weinstein, both evolutionary bioligists:

4 Non-attachment in brief: We learn to stop clinging to what we have and like, worrying about loss; and conversely hating on what is that we don’t like, begrudging its presence. A weight is lifted from our experience, as there is no longer a sense of lack. cf. Four Noble Truths in Buddhism.

Non-identification in brief: We stop identifying ourselves with our bodies, giving them an ontological reality they don’t deserve; as well as with our personal stories of who we are and will be. We gain a new courage, as we shed our fear of death. cf. Second Discourse of the Buddha on the Not-Self Characteristic.

Non-separation in brief: We no longer see boundaries between us and the world; the universe is seen as our true body. We love easily and deeply, as whomever and whatever we encounter is seen as part of us, a version of us, inseparable from us. cf. quotations due Marcus Aurelius and Albert Einstein in my blog post, Non-Dual Philosophy: A First Taste:

5 from the Prajnaparamita Sutra (a.k.a. Heart Sutra), by the Buddha.